‘La La Land’: What worked and what didn’t (for me)

La La Land (2016)

Damien Chazelle’s latest film La La Land is a loving tribute to not just the classic movie musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age but also cinema in general, and Chazelle couldn’t have found a grander and more appropriate way to film it than in glorious Cinemascope, which a few passionate filmmakers are now employing to relive those good old childhood days they spent at the cinema watching the early classics. And Chazelle does it right.

He begins the film with an energetic musical number on a sun-drenched L.A freeway that immediately evokes West Side Story, the 1961 musical which was a modern day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s the sort of stuff that we occasionally dream of when we get stuck in a dreary traffic jam ourselves, hoping to find some relief from the intense boredom and frustration that usually accompanies such situations.

Chazelle’s decision to do this sequence in a single-take is an inspired one. When all the commuters get out of their cars and break out into a dance, the camera rushes to be an active participant alongside them.  Every dancing body moves in perfect synchronicity with each other’s as if they are being puppeteered by the dancing gods themselves (What a sight!) until the camera finally comes to a halt and sneaks up on the two principal leads – Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia, who are among these stranded commuters.

Mia is a struggling actress working at a barista located on the Warner Bros’ lot. (Chazelle’s last female protagonist – from Whiplash – worked at the snack bar of a movie theater). We are taken to another musical number (also done in one take) in which Mia and her roommates are getting ready for a night out. I was reminded of a similar sequence involving Olivia Newton-John and her roommates from Grease. When her car is taken away by a tow-truck, she is destined to walk into a jazz club where Sebastian is the pianist.

She had flipped him the bird earlier on the freeway and their second meeting doesn’t go well either. She walks in exactly at the moment he gets fired by his boss (J.K Simmons in a cameo) because he is tired of playing Christmas music. But, third time’s a charm? In a dance number that pays a lovely homage to An American in Paris, the two evoke the spirits of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Later, he walks into her barista and their love story begins. Their long walks take them from one famous movie location to another.

They attend a screening of Rebel without a Cause where a kiss in the dark somehow manages to “burn” the film reel. Talk about a kiss burning up the screen, but this time one that came from the real world! They decide to “continue” this interrupted scene by driving up to the Griffith Observatory, and this is where Chazelle gifts us with the film’s most magical moment. I can’t recall the last time that I had seen a sequence this enchanting. Seb and Mia begin to float and they are literally dancing with the stars – a nod to Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, I’m sure.

Seasons change – Chazelle uses title cards to announce the beginning of each – and along with them, thoughts and feelings. Seb encourages Mia to do her own thing and she encourages him to do his. But real life is not always hunky-dory as the musicals and these characters may have to make some painful choices. This is what sets the film apart from the old Hollywood musicals like Singing in the Rain (my favorite) where nothing bad ever happens. La La Land is rooted in both fantasy and reality at the same time. And I liked that.

Now, about the flaws. There were some portions that really dragged. Both Gosling and Stone’s characters start to lose their sheen in the second half. They no longer seem as interesting as they did initially. A few of the songs and musical pieces were unmemorable, with the exception of ‘City of Stars’. The film lacked what Whiplash had – a consistently engaging screenplay. It could’ve used a tighter editing. After a certain point, I started to get slightly bored of the revolving camera trick which was used more than what was necessary.

Conclusion: La La Land is a stunning musical that celebrates the magic of love, movies, and jazz. There is no denying the fact that it is a well-made film technically, but in terms of overall quality, I felt that it falls a couple of notches below Whiplash. And I’m not trying to be contrarian. I’m very certain of the replay value of the latter (I even wrote a piece rooting for it to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards last year) but I’m not so sure of the replay value of the former. I might watch it again to see if I would appreciate it more the second time around.

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